Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health issues in the world today. In the U.S alone, almost 20 percent of people struggle with an anxiety disorder. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, globally, almost 284 million people struggle with anxiety.
Although anxiety treatment is available, and many available treatments show proven effectiveness across multiple studies, less than half of Americans receive treatment for their anxiety. Several barriers to treatment contribute to the low percentage, namely social stigma, and socioeconomic barriers.
Moreover, many people are reluctant to take medication for mental health issues. They are of great help to those in need, but there is a risk of misuse and dependence as with most medication. There are also many undesired side effects to medication, including drowsiness and confusion.
As such, practitioners and patients alike are curious about alternative forms of treatment for anxiety and other conditions. This is reflected in the increasing popularity of complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs).
In this article, we’ll explore pressure points for anxiety and the power of acupressure, a common CAM that dates back to ancient times, as a means of achieving much-needed relief from anxiety symptoms. First, let’s take a closer look at CAMs.
What is complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)?
Long before modern medicine, people used a more holistic approach to help physical and mental health issues. Physical and mental illness was viewed as an imbalance in the body, and healing focused on restoring that balance with mind-body interventions, plant medicines, and lifestyle interventions.
One of these healing modalities was acupressure, a type of ancient Chinese medicine. Today, although we have made significant advancements in medicine, more and more practitioners, scientists, and psychologists realize the long-standing benefits of a more ancient, holistic approach to health.
Nowadays, medical and mental health professionals are increasingly prescribing CAM (complementary and alternative medicines) to their patients alongside conventional medical interventions and therapy.
Common CAMs include:
- Yoga, Tai chi, Qi Gong
- Herbal medicine
- Ayurvedic medicine
What is acupressure?
Acupressure is a type of traditional Chinese medicine. An acupressure practitioner works by applying pressure to specific points on the body, known as pressure points or acupoints. Acupressure aims to release muscle tension throughout the body, thereby improving blood flow and oxygen flow, ultimately promoting the body’s natural healing abilities.
There are several medical uses for acupressure. Many people visit an acupuncturist to relieve migraines, bowel problems, muscle aches and pain, and anxiety symptoms. Even without health issues or conditions, one might try acupressure to relax and improve their emotional well-being.
According to TCM, emotional and mental health issues exist partly due to an imbalance in the body’s energy (Qi) system. Through acupressure or its cousin acupuncture, practitioners aim to release blocked energy and help the person suffering by promoting greater energy flow throughout the body.
While it’s wise to visit a professional and licensed practitioner if you want to get acupuncture, you can try acupressure at home all by yourself. It’s simple to get started and is something you can keep in your anxiety toolkit to help in times of stress and exacerbated symptoms. Some of the acupressure techniques are so simple that you can do them anywhere without anyone even noticing!
Pressure points for anxiety relief
There are hundreds of acupressure points throughout the body, but five, in particular, are commonly used to help relieve stress and anxiety. They are:
1. Yin Tang (between the eyebrows)
This acupressure point is located between the eyebrow. Also known as the Hall of Impression point. You can activate this pressure point by applying firm pressure in a circular motion with your thumb or index finger.
2. Shen Men (upper ear)
Shen Men, also known as the heavenly gate point, is a popular point to help relieve anxiety. Located in the inside of the upper ear, you can activate this point by lightly squeezing the area with your thumb and index finger and applying a circular motion for two to three minutes.
3. Jian Jing (shoulders/neck)
Jian Jing, also known as the shoulder wellpoint, effectively releases local muscle tension and headaches and is commonly activated for anxiety relief. Apply firm pressure to the point where your shoulders meet your neck to activate this point.
4. Neiguan (inner wrist)
The Neiguan point, also known as the inner frontier gate point, is one of the most common acupressure points for a broad range of physical and emotional health symptoms. Anxiety, nausea, dizziness, and insomnia reliefs are just some of the benefits of applying pressure to this point.
This point is located in the inner forearm, about two inches below the top of the wrist. You can find this point easily by making a fist and placing pressure on the area between the tendons that bulge out.
5. Hegu (between thumb and index)
The hegu point, also known as the union valley point, is one the most easily accessible and effective points for anxiety relief. It’s located in between the thumb and the index finger. Squeeze this point with your opposite thumb and index finger. You should feel a pinch at first; apply light to medium pressure for one to two minutes to feel its effect.
Do pressure points really work?
Some people disregard acupressure and other popular CAMs as mere pseudoscience and explain the healing benefits as a placebo effect. However, there is evidence to suggest that acupressure and CAMs in general do, in fact, work. Acupressure is similar to what we often call ‘shiatsu’ massage, a manual massage therapy that aims to release blocked energy channels in the body. According to the journal Acupuncture in Medicine, ‘acupressure seems to be effective in providing immediate relief of pretreatment anxiety among adults.’
How does acupressure work?
Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine promote acupressure and acupuncture to balance the body’s Qi or energy. Physical and mental health issues are perceived as energy blocks or imbalance. The practitioner heals the body through stimulation of ‘meridian’ points, areas of significance with the power to release blocked energy channels.
Today, modern medicine focuses less on meridians and energy channels. However, we know that stimulation of the acupoints does have a physiological effect. Pressure or even attention applied to some regions of the body through acupressure and yoga, movement, and massage relieves muscle tension, encourages lymphatic health, and helps improve our breathing.
Ultimately, pressure points, manual therapies, and other body-based healing approaches help to reduce sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation and promote parasympathetic activation. SNS is associated with our fight/flight response – we feel stressed and on edge when it’s in high activation. The PSNS is associated with rest and digestion. We feel calm, grounded, and safe when it’s activated.
When we’re anxious, our SNS senses some danger in the present or in the near future. There doesn’t even need to be any real danger – sometimes our brain and nervous system store past unresolved threats, fears, worries, and anxieties and replay them when something triggers the memory.
Still, we can’t tell our body directly to calm down. We need to guide it into a calm, safe state through breathing and relaxation. Pressure points help us achieve enough physical relaxation for the brain to understand that it’s ok to relax, shut off the alarm system, and disengage the SNS.
Acupressure points and other CAMs are intended for use alongside conventional medicine or therapy. They are an excellent tool to use in times of stress and as a preventative measure against worsening anxiety symptoms.
Still, if you’re struggling with an anxiety disorder, then it’s wise to seek the support of a mental health professional rather than relying on CAM’s alone. Most people who struggle with anxiety disorder recover well and learn to manage their condition through a combination of therapy and self-help techniques.
If you don’t have an anxiety disorder but you feel stressed and nervous from time to time, pressure points can most certainly help. Again, they’re not a treatment in themselves but are in effect in the short term for relieving stress.